Using the Outdoors to Get Back In to Jewish Life

My phone rings. “All my life,” the caller says, “I’ve been waiting for someone to connect my love of organic farming and my love of Judaism. And you just did it.”

This is the conversation I had with Ilan Salzberg, who later founded Ekar Farm, a communal urban farm inspired by Jewish values. His call was prompted by an invitation to attend the Hazon Food Conference. Together with the Oreg Foundation, Rose Community Foundation offered scholarships to attract emerging leaders to the Conference.

Our hope was that the Conference would inspire a new Jewish food movement in Denver and Boulder. It worked: one small grant led to a burgeoning array of grassroots and institutional efforts to promote healthier and more sustainable Jewish communities here (see details in Building a Jewish Food Movement in ColoradoA Case Study) .

Amid the concerned voices about the future of Jewish engagement, I am excited. A new report—Seeds of Opportunity: A National Study of Immersive Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environmental Education (JOFEE) and the companion New York and Colorado case studies—show the growth, creativity, and potential for this young but clearly thriving field.

This is why I am excited: The study makes clear what Ilan taught me—connecting Jewish tradition with contemporary issues, the outdoors, food, environment, in ways that are pedagogically serious—has a profound impact on JOFEE (Jewish Outdoor, Food & Environmental Education) participants, and is a key reason many opt back in to Jewish life after years of disengagement.

Seeds of Opportunity demonstrates that immersive JOFEE programs are having a significant impact on people’s individual Jewish identity and commitment, and on leadership development within their Jewish life. JOFEE programs and new methodologies are breathing new energy and commitment into the modern Jewish community.

In fact, too often the Jewish community draws a distinction between affiliated and unaffiliated Jews. But many JOFEE participants appear to fit a third profile: people who had to some degree a traditional Jewish upbringing, who subsequently became alienated from Jewish life and then stepped back into Jewish life and leadership through a JOFEE portal. These experiences, such as Jewish farming programs, wilderness celebrations of Jewish holidays, and multi-day Jewish bike rides, are a re-entry point for Jewish life. They then become a path for ongoing Jewish engagement.

Twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings in particular fit this third profile. While many do not affiliate with traditional denominations or synagogues, the study confirms they have a high engagement in the actualities of Jewish life – observance, friends, commitment, etc.

JOFEE programs also have a significant viral impact on this age group, as last year’s program participants become next year’s program founders. Once people choose to participate in a JOFEE program, there is often a “ripple effect” for Jewish communal life—87 percent of participants in immersive JOFEE programs say they have helped organize a Jewish communal event or gathering; two-thirds say their JOFEE experience influenced this.

Thanks to this study, funders now have initial answers to the big-picture questions important to all of us who care about increased Jewish engagement: What should we be doing? How can we achieve the most significant long-term outcomes? A list of considerations for funders at the end of the study provides tangible suggestions, including:

  • Support the development of professionals in the JOFEE space to build the capacity needed for JOFEE to reach its potential
  • Consider ways to promote JOFEE concepts and approaches with existing grantee portfolios
  • Support market research to better understand the needs, interest, and constraints of JOFEE participants

This study makes clear that, for those of us who care about and fund the future of Jewish life in this country, the emerging JOFEE strategies hold high promise for renewing Jewish life–and creating a more sustainable world for all.


Lisa Farber Miller is Senior Program Officer at Rose Community Foundation, which joined Jim Joseph Foundation, Leichtag Foundation, The Morningstar Foundation, Schusterman Family Foundation, and UJA-Federation of New York to fund the JOFEE study. She can be reached at lfmiller@rcfdenver.org.

Share